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On May 5 and 6, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society will host its annual symposium on congressional history. After a dozen years on a chronological journey through the sectional conflicts that dominated much of the nineteenth century, this year we shift gears to trace one topic that appears repeatedly in American history. Discussions about immigration, related legislation, and consequences of reforms or changes to current laws are sprinkled across the pages of current events news and campaign coverage; these topics pepper conversations around the country. Congress and a Nation of Immigrants, 1790-1990: From the First Naturalization Act to the Simpson-Mazzoli Act will examine the historical underpinnings of these current debates through various lenses, including race, quotas, politics, and popular culture. As speakers consider immigration law and related issues, they will detail and challenge popular perceptions of racial, ethnic, and political differences in American society.

Speaker Lance Sussman (Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel; Gratz College) is focusing his talk on Rep. Emanuel Celler, one of the namesakes of the landmark 1965 immigration legislation that shifted U.S. immigration policy away from primary reliance on quotas based on national origins and toward skill- and family-based preferences. The title of the talk, “Reopening the Golden Door:  Congressman Emanuel Celler’s 40 Year Struggle for Immigration Reform, 1924-1965”, initially suggested to me that Celler retired, covered in glory, shortly after winning an extended battle over immigration policy, but Celler had a fifty-year career that spanned the mid-twentieth century and its dominant issues, including the New Deal, WWII, the Red Scare, the civil rights movement, and feminism.

Rep. Emanuel Celler in 1951.

Rep. Emanuel Celler in 1951. Courtesy New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

Celler entered the House just in time to (unsuccessfully) fight against the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which barred Asian immigration and limited immigration from many countries in an attempt to maintain the racial and national origin status quo in the United States. Celler, representing a Brooklyn district full of immigrants of varied backgrounds (including many from eastern or southern Europe) and their descendants, objected to legislation that would limit future immigration from many of their homelands. The 1965 Hart-Celler Act was certainly a centerpiece in Celler’s work on immigration reform, but when looking at his career as a whole, writers tend to classify it as an example of his ongoing work on civil rights legislation. Celler chaired the House Committee on the Judiciary almost continuously throughout the 1950s and 60s and authored, co-authored, or otherwise championed the groundbreaking civil rights acts of the period. Celler supported New Deal programs, urged FDR to accept more Jewish refugees during WWII, and opposed the House Unamerican Activities Committee.

Elizabeth Holtzman

Elizabeth Holtzman (Library of Congress)

Ironically, another facet of the civil rights era shaped the end of his congressional career. Celler lost the 1972 Democratic primary to Elizabeth Holtzman, who highlighted his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and his support for the Vietnam War while running the same kind of underdog, grass-roots, on-the-street campaign that Cellar had run when he first won his seat in 1922.

The upcoming symposium is free and open to the public, so if you’re in DC, join us May 5 and 6 on Capitol Hill to learn more about immigration legislation throughout American history. Pre-register here! The schedule is posted on our website, and Sussman will speak about Celler’s work on immigration reform at 10 am on May 6.

Works Consulted
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Emanuel Celler and Elizabeth Holtman.

Carroll, Maurice. “Emanuel Celler, Former Brooklyn Congressman, Dies at 92.” The New York Times (New York): January 16, 1981.

Kammer, Jerry. “The Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965.” Center for Immigration Studies website: October 2015.

U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian website. Key Milestones, “The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act).”

Wasniewski, Matthew, editor in chief. “Elizabeth Holtzman,” Women in Congress, 1917-2006, p. 482-487. Washington, DC: 2006.